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Media bill controversy

As the ink dries on a bill forcing NGOs with foreign financing to register as “foreign agents,” a similar proposal for media outlets is facing an apparent backlash from an unexpected place – the Kremlin.

The criticism over United Russia deputy Yevgeny Fyodorov’s proposed bill suggests the recent spate of laws for “tightening the screws” are not all passed down from the top, and at least some are seen as getting just a notch too tight.

Fyodorov, a legislator from the party of power, which was, until recently, headed by President Vladimir Putin, was somewhat baffled by the criticism from his leaders. “What, it’s normal to demand transparency for NGOs, but it’s not normal to demand transparency from mass media?” he told The Moscow News on Friday.

“It’s a normal bill. As for different opinions, that’s a good thing – the Duma is a place for discussion, isn’t it?”

The bill, which Fyodorov submitted to the State Duma last Wednesday, would force media publications and television stations that get at least 50 percent of their funding from foreign sources to register as foreign agents, much like NGOs are being forced to do.

Foreign-funded media would undergo different regulatory measures – but unlike NGOs, whose heads could be fined or even imprisoned for not complying, media directors would not face penalties for not registering.

Distancing themselves

United Russia top brass rushed to distance themselves from the bill as soon as it was submitted, with the deputy head of the party’s general council, Sergei Zheleznyak, suggesting it was redundant.

But more evident disapproval of the initiative emerged Friday, when an unnamed Kremlin source called plans to check publications for foreign financing “complete nonsense.”

The source suggested that the initiative was downright mental. “Should we go insane, you will be the first to find out,” Vedomosti quoted the Kremlin source as saying.

Angry reprimand

The bill reportedly got United Russia top brass a surprisingly angry reprimand from the Kremlin administration, Izvestia reported Monday, citing sources close to the Kremlin. Irritation with the bill was so strong that it went as far up as the deputy head of the administration, Vyacheslav Volodin, the daily reported.

According to the publication, United Russia leaders were ordered to sort out where the bill had come from, and, according to their results, it was a certain Yury Shuvalov – not Fyodorov – who came up with plans to start checking mass media.

Fyodorov could not be reached for comment on Monday, but said Friday that the idea for the law came from a round-table discussion in parliament on Russia’s “sovereignty.” He said he expected a first reading in October, and denied ever discussing the bill with anyone from the presidential administration.

As for the bill itself, Fyodorov appeared concerned that foreignfunded media were distorting coverage with often disastrous results.

“No one ever gets money for nothing,” he said. “Money comes with orders, and those orders affect editorial policy.”

Fyodorov is convinced that, much like NGOs, foreign-funded mass media can facilitate revolutions like the ones that occurred in the Arab world. “The protests [in Russia] wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for [disinformation] ordered through foreign-funded organs, media included,” he said.

Sincere effort

According to Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a prominent sociologist and a former member of United Russia who has studied the Russian elite, such initiatives from party deputies are not just attempts to curry favor, they are also entirely sincere.

And the recent spate of laws countering many of former President Dmitry Medvedev’s liberal reforms were not all Putin’s doing, according to Kryshtanovskaya.

“Many members of the elite did not like the kind of democracy they were seeing under Medvedev,” Kryshtanovskaya told The Moscow News. “I would often hear [party members] saying that more stringent control was necessary. Many members of the elite believe that Medvedev, because of his weakness, allowed the protests to happen, that this is the result of his thaw.”

Initiatives like that of Fyodorov are an indication of eager support for Putin’s more conservative line, not just shows of loyalty. “They are saying, ‘We are with you, that’s the way to go.’ We may not see this consolidation on a social scale, but among the elites there is increasing consolidation around this conservative line, although they themselves don’t necessarily see it as inherently conservative,” Kryshtanovskaya said. “They just want order.”

As for the Kremlin’s response, it’s much like parents trying to clean a house with children eager to help, Kryshtanovskaya believes. “Sometimes the children trying to help just end up getting in the way,” she said.